This brief interview appeared in the Synthesis in February of 1998 under a different title. This was one of my first interviews, as you might guess by some of the questions. I was/am a huge Whiskeytown fan and on top of being terribly nervous, I had a horrible head cold at the time. Ryan was friendly and garrulous, and a terrific subject.
For the uninitiated, Whiskeytown is one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the alt-country camp in recent years. They’re best described as bastard sons of the Replacements and the Rolling Stones. Naturally there are country elements—the band is from South Carolina—but the presence of instruments such as fiddle and lap steel isn’t as much an indication of an alignment with the alt-country movement as it is an exploration of their American musical heritage. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Ryan Adams, the singer/songwriter behind Whiskeytown, about the past, present, and the future a band on the rise.
So how’s the tour going?
Oh man, it’s the best turnout. I mean, it’s great turnouts. Things have been really rolling. I think this is probably the best one.
How are sales on Strangers Almanac?
Uh, pretty good as far as I know, I don’t really keep up with that. They tell me its doing great. I try not to get too involved with that part of it. That’s not my job.
That’s not why you’re playing music.
Yeah, it’s the record company’s job to sell it. It’s my job to make it.
Strangers Almanac has received some serious critical praise—Rolling Stone said it could be the Nevermind of the alt. country genre—how does that make you feel? Do you feel pressured by it?
No, not at all. I don’t want to sound snotty, but I agree. I think it’s a pretty great record. I believe in that record pretty hard. I mean, there’s some production things that I sort of distance myself from, and I think that the band, we play the record better now. Uh, like live, the record’s more intense. We usually play the whole album, except for “Waiting to Derail,” which was never a “live” song. We did it for a little while, but I never liked doing it ’cause it was sort of like a studio thing. We kind of walked in—me and the bass player kinda walked in off the street—and grabbed the drummer and told him what the beat was, and we cut the music. But yeah, I think the record’s better now. I think it’s a good record.
Do you like it more than Faithless Street?
No, I like them all equally. I don’t listen to them much, but making the record is really pretty intense process. You have to be satisfied with the end result because it’s going to be out there. If you put out something you think you’re going to regret, it could be really, really detrimental and fucked up to your life. You could spend the rest of your life hating it, y’know?
And trying to live it down…
Yeah, I mean, I haven’t come anywhere near that kind of thing. Usually, the editing process will start after I write a song. If I don’t like it immediately, I don’t play it, you know what I mean? That usually doesn’t happen, ’cause usually if I’m writing a song I can turn it into something I can dig.
Various papers have reported you weren’t happy with how your relationship with Mood Food ended—particularly their release of Rural Free Delivery… Any comments?
Well I can comment on it to a degree but I don’t want to get too completely involved it ’cause you know, the bastard is out of my life now. But yeah, we pretty much got fucked.
Was it a kind of John Fogerty thing?
It was this kind of thing where this guy saw us—we were drunk; we were dumb—he saw money. Eventually what happened was we didn’t get a cent of it. He picked off us off the street and we actually licensed our first 7-inch to the guy with four songs off Rural Free Delivery—it’s a 7-inch you can’t get anymore… I think he called it Angels EP or something, but it was quite cool. Those songs sound great on vinyl. We just licensed it to him. We said, “Here, you can put this out,” because we wanted to put a record out and he had some cash. So we didn’t even ask for any money or anything; we just wanted to finish a record. And then one night he come by the house and he was like, “Let’s make a record and shit,” and all this crap. And we of course said “yes,” and signed this ridiculous contract and got screwed.
I mean, fuck it. I mean at this point, at this point I kinda don’t care. We got to put Faithless Street out; we didn’t get any tour support. I guess the biggest problem was he was a complete asshole to the band. If he had been nice, at least friendly or something, I think our relationship would have been cool. He would been like, “Look, you know, I’m just going to hook you up with a big label. You’ll make money. This is the process.” I might have understood that I could have eventually made a career out of it, but he definitely didn’t approach us that way. He was basically like, “Fuck you, you’re nothing. Losers.” And we were all, “Oh, great.”
So you guys were pretty happy when Outpost picked you up?
I love that label man! That label is great. I mean, I still get in my little arguments with the label, but it’s usually for good reasons about important things that should be considered. But Mark Williams, Scott, Mandy, and all those guys, they’re classic.
So I read you had Outpost buy Faithless Street from Mood Food. Do they have plans to reissue it in the future?
Yeah, it was going to come out this month, but it’s looking like September now. Things move a lot slower up in the big leagues. Which is my only beef… Which is why I make 7-inches on Bloodshot, so I can stay satisfied, y’know.
Speaking of Bloodshot, you recently did an Austin City Limits with the Old 97s.
Yeah, well, we didn’t do it with them. We did Austin City Limits, they just happened to be there. [snorts] They happened to be playing too, I got nothing to do with them.
So, uh, you’re not a big fan of the Old 97s?
So how’d the taping go?
I heard you premiered a new song that you co-wrote with Caitlin?
Um, yeah. It’s not new, but it’s a sort of a classic. Sort of a live staple song that Caitlin and I have done for a while. She and I used to play these little hootenannies by ourselves, y’know? Just she and I, going out on the weekends, and [play for] drink money back home. And that was one of the songs we’ve had forever, but we’ve never cut it to album, so we did it on the show and it turned out incredibly, it turned out really great.
Great! So when does the show air?
April 23 or something like that, I don’t know if that’s the exact date, but it’s pretty damn close to it.
So have you been doing any other recording, like a new album, or…?
We’ve already done some recording. We’re always recording. I mean, if I should ever get in some bad fuckin’ car wreck or should anything ever happen to the band, there’s so much recorded material by this band that records could probably come out for another four years. We’re always recording. I think we’ve got something like probably 150 songs that we’ve delivered, or close to a 100 maybe, to Outpost, either in demo or finished form or songs that I’ve just done by myself.
Yeah, it was one of the things I wanted in the contract was that at any and all times I could record, that there would be money for it. Considering that’s all I really care about is getting it on tape because I know eventually somebody will be smart enough to put it out. I know it doesn’t suck; I get really heavy sometimes… My moods get really heavy, and I have to go—I have to record. Because I go, “Man, this is fucking too much, I better lay it down.” Because that’s the time you’re in the song, and I’m usually in the fuckin’ song, y’know? I mean, I haven’t been writing on this tour per se so much yet, but we’ve only been out a week or so and I just finished a bunch of recording so it’s kinda’ like the next batch is brewing. I wrote a song down on a bar napkin last night that I like a whole lot called “Still, I’m Not Sleeping.” It’s really beautiful. I might work it up and try to start playing it on the tour. It’s like a real bummer song, it’s kinda cool though. It’s like optimistic bumming out.
In Strangers Almanac, the songs are really honest and they carry a blend of optimism and fatalism.
Yeah, I’m trying to get to this new beautific fatalism. Kind of like classic, razor-sharp songs. Kind of almost scary, yet kind of beautiful? Kind of like, I don’t know, kind of like Billie Holiday would do. Not stylistically that same thing, but the same sort of inherent idea, a spooky honesty.
Like old folk stuff, Carter Family, stuff like that?
Oh yeah, all those classic works. Stuff like “Oh Death,” that stuff scares the shit of me. Or Lefty Frizzell is pretty fuckin’ scary too.
Yeah, that’s more intense than most punk rock nowadays. So what kind of direction do you see Whiskeytown taking in the future? More along the rock/country line or are you going veer off and surprise everybody with a new approach?
We’ll probably surprise people at some point, but I think a lot the stuff that Caitlin and I write or the band does, I think there’s a kind of a style—or at least I’ve come to think there’s one. Because usually if we’re going to write out of our boundaries, we’ll know if it’s kind of out of our thing. I don’t know if that makes any sense. It’s kind of odd, it’s kind of like you can’t see the field from within the field, y’know? But you can try, and I’ll think about that sometimes, thinking about some new songs we might be messing with, and go “Damn, that’s pretty cool.” We have that, it’s like pretty easy to tell when it’s us…
But we do some weird stuff too. We do some swampy blues shit, y’know, we do some real strict country—honkytonk. Caitlin and I can probably get pretty close to bluegrass when we’re sittin’ around pickin’. Usually it’s like those elements of that… I love rock and roll… I love the Stones, they’re my favorite band.
Which album is your favorite?
Probably Exile on Main Street… But uh,
Anything from that era, right?
That era, Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed… That stuff is really important to me. I sort of got into Black and Blue. It depends on what drug on what night, man. [laughter] There’s a different one for each Stones record; there’s a different cocktail that makes it work. I really dig that. I mean, it’s kind of like, I think what I dig about them so hard is that they sort of comprise all these elements of American music and put them together. And that’s kinda’ like what I want to do, or that’s what we do, actually. It’s like what sounds best to me. The thing is, you gotta get deeper and deeper into like soul music, and stuff like that; I’m going as far in as I can get, and with some decent results. I guess it’s a lot like you have a relationship with music if there’s longevity to your songwriting, and eventually the relationship just gets more intense.
So where do you see Whiskeytown in five years?
On tour. [laughter] Working, man. If I’m not working, I’m not happy.
Do you literally want to be the Nirvana of alt-country and be playing coliseums?
When we talked about that earlier, I wasn’t talking terms of success… What I tried to surmise that they mean is that we are kind of like, as good of a band. I think that what they were thinking was that we are how like Nirvana was to the grunge movement musically…. that they were the really good and kind of sinister band. There was a real big darkness to them. You can fucking turn up your guitars and play E chords all night—that doesn’t mean your music is going to be dark. You have to be literal, you have to have a mind for it. I try to look at it like that. As far as the success of it goes, success to me is like whenever we accomplish…When we play, it’s success—when we play a great gig, and that’s happening like every other night. Almost every night, you know what I mean? We’re so hard on ourselves. Other people are probably thinking they’re all great, but I want magic.